6 November – Great walls and horses

I’m sure you will have realized that we spent most of yesterday well north of China’s ancient northern defence system.We have a bit of a sleep today and don’t meet Steed until 9am. It’s a short rive north to our last place to admire and enjoy the Great Wall. We arrive at a massive empty parking lot. Tickets are bought, we pass through the turn style. All the scenic spots are designed in much the same way – to accommodate massive numbers of thronging people.

A short walk brings us to a well restored fortified garrison. We stroll through the kitchens, men’s quarters, jail and much more comfortable looking married and officers quarters. Across a wide parade square and up onto this section of the wall. Here there is no mountain ridge to climb first. On the far side of the wall is a narrow treed park, then wide sandy beach followed by the Ocean. Far far away is North America (We are somewhere just a shade north of the 40th parallel.) 

We continue along the wall, there are no ups and downs here and soon we come to a temple. Here the wall heads inland in one direction and branches off towards the ocean in the other. We follow it out past the beach to where it ends in the sea. We are at Laolongtou – the Wall’s eastern terminus. Pictures taken and the moment duly recorded, we walk down a set of steps (added in recent years for us tourists) and head south along the wide sandy beach. While this feels like it should be an appropriate conclusion to our Wall explorations, the lack of grand elevation, the cranes of a huge port just to the north, the wooden tourist steps over a rough patch, the glass covers protecting a few remaining original bits, and the smooth newness of the structure, somewhat detracts from the overall appearance. This is not a wow moment but due to the lack of crowds, the pleasant warm day, and the lovely beach it is nonetheless a pleasant one.

We head towards a pier, and unlike Brighton’s famous amusement park pier (and many others I’ve seen of like nature), this one is composed of a series of temples. They are of course very pretty and the camera comes out again. To date I’ve taken more than 2400! Yikes.

This is a restored version of the original structure which was destroyed during the Opium Wars in the very early 1900s by the “Eight Powers.” A couple of those powers were the British and the French. A very simplistic synopsis of these Opium Wars is that in 1838 the ruling Qing emperor tried to ban the opium trade. This caused the foreign powers to wage war with China for the next 60 or so years. The trade in opium was making many foreigners and Chinese businessmen incredibly rich so there was much incentive to keep trading opium in exchange for Chinese silk and other treasures. It was of course having a devastating effect on the segment of the Chinese population that used, abused and became addicted to the stuff. The British East India company was a major importer of opium into China during this time. China lost the wars and among many other concessions that contributed in part to the fall of the dynastic empire, ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1842.  

We return to the car, finding a secret and tiny passage way through the wall in order to shorten the walk and avoid climbing back up the wall (Dad remaining firm in his dislike of needless upping and downing).
Our next visit is to the old town of Shanhaiguan. This is the town that grew up around the garrison stationed at this section of the wall starting during the Ming Dynasty. The ancient town is much restored and still occupied. Like the Hutongs of Beijing it is now a tourist attraction in itself. Unlike the rather messy crowded Hutong we visited in Beijing, this area has been practically sterilized. As a result empty lane after empty lane bordered by uniform grey cement walls stretch away from the main drag on a precise grid. Where the locals keep their cars, bikes or other such stuff is not evident. The walls are periodically interrupted by gateways and, for the most part, closed gates. I think had we walked through the streets we’d have seen pockets of interest but we have been ensconced in a ridiculous little white carriage that Walt Disney’s Cinderella would no doubt have loved. Dad and I are horrified but as the distance to be explored is more than he likes to walk and the normal tourist golf-cart trains seem to not be running, we are stuck in the wee white carriage which is decorated with fake roses twined around its delicate frame. 
After our carriage ride through town we are deposited by a courtyard with large gate. This is a hub of activity. There is a proper Mongolian camel with two humps standing by for photos ops with tourists. What grabs my eye though are three beautiful horses all done up with bells and colourful Mongolian saddlery. These too are standing around for tourist photo ops. Steed finds out the price which is very reasonable and in a flash I’m up on a high stool and atop a fine white horse. Turns out this beast is Russian and I don’t think he speaks English. The horse’s human doesn’t speak English either but Steed says something to him and the guy leads us out of the crowd, tucks the lead rein up under the saddle and let’s me take the horse for a ride. He indicates we can ride up the road to the drum tower at the end of the block. I give the horse a nudge (international horse language) and off we go. OMG. What a rush. This is a frisky high stepping horse. Things go well until a car comes along. The car looks kinda small and low from this vantage point. How big is this creature anyway!? Horse disapproves of the car and we do some skittering sides steps. I decide the side walk is our best bet. Horse is still nervous so I pull him into a tight circle. He sees his human who is coming along some distance away. Horse seems happy with this so allows me to turn him back towards our destination. A bit further on and a vehicle horn sounds. This sends him into a bit of a lather again and there’s lots more prancing and head nodding and general snuffing. I spin him again and decide to let his owner catch us up. Having never ridden on slippery stone pavement before I find the slithery and racket of horses hooves a bit unnerving. Horse seems happy when his human comes and this calms him down a bit. We then continue as a threesome up the road. The man runs flat out alongside while the horse and I have a good canter. It is totally AWESOME. We canter back with a bit more dignity until a little dog rushes out barking and that gets horse all prancing and huffing again. Back at the gate, the man offers to have his horse rear for a photo op. Well how could I resist. For this endeavour the reins are tied to the saddle (no mixed commands from the hapless rider that way) and I grip the horn as instructed. Horse seems to know exactly what is required and on command he obligingly rears up and holds the pose. We do this three times. It is a rush. Once I’m back on the ground, I realize these are actually very large powerful “war” horses. 
What a rush! We go for a very late afternoon sea food “lunch.” All the food is cooked in a steamer at our table. Hot, fresh, delicious and too much for us to eat. Steed takes a large take out bag home with him. We return to our hotel with the sunset. Have I mentioned that Dad and I are really impressed with this place. The restaurant is staffed by a crew of very young people and the quality of service is outstanding.

Off to bed. Tomorrow we head to Beijing. It will be about a four hour drive. The next day we fly home. Our China adventure has come to an end. We have learned a great deal about this country of dichotomies but have barely scratched the surface. This is a very interesting and complex country. It is in part modern and fast growing, but also very traditional. There is enormous wealth and tremendous poverty. Much of the capitalism of the west has been embraced but there are still walls being built (the internet fire wall). The taxation of such a massive population seems to afford many social programs and 1000s of people die each year as a direct result of filthy air and polluted water. 
It is going to make me some time to process this incredible journey.
Kim signing off on these dispatches from China. Hope to send pictures soon.

5 November – Into the wilderness of northern China

Today is long but absolutely fascinating and completely different from any we’ve had to date while here in China. We depart the hotel best forgotten in Chengde at 8am. I know, an early morning after such a full on day yesterday. No rest for the avid traveler. Again it is a cold start to the day but the sun is shining.
Heading north west into a less rugged mountainous landscape, we come to a more forested remote country of rolling hills. For the first while we continue through numerous long tunnels (up to almost 6 kms) on the near empty modern divided highway but eventually turn off onto less travelled secondary roads. We climb. The country becomes less inhabited. We pass several roadside villages. All are very similar. Grey and black brick cottages, neat and clean, lined up in tidy rows. Each with a garden space and courtyard. These, we are told, have been built by the government so the mountain dwellers can move into central locations thus enjoy better accommodation, medical care and schools for their children. These people can travel by small vehicles to their hunting grounds or farms to continue making their living in the traditional manner. Looks quite ideal. Sounds great too. We don’t meet anyone living in one of these little villages to get their opinion. Maybe it is as perfect a solution as it appears to be. What do you think? I don’t really know what to think. The neatness and cleanliness and general feeling of industrious labour prevails.
We climb higher, passing through Qipanshan, a busy frontier town on its market day. Many farmers selling their produce, people seem happy and busy. There are new vehicles and old. Young people and old. The town looks rough and tumble but prosperous. We continue on and the road becomes a switch back version of its former self. We climb. We pass through the park gates of Saihanbai Grasslands National Park at which no one is taking entry payment this time of the year. We are now in quite dense forest of hemlock and silver birch. The trees have all lost their leaves and there is some snow on the ground from a snow storm last week. We climb. Eventually we come to a parking lot where we get out to stretch our legs. 

There is a Pagoda here. This seems extremely incongruous to me. A Pagoda a top a hill in the wilderness. The sun shines brightly and a cold wind blows across the vast expanse of forest around us. I climb to the top of the Pagoda (of course I do) even though it is obviously closed for the season as the stair well is pitch black. At the top I open the windows to a commanding view across the forest. When I look north I am seeing the southern reaches of Inner Mongolia. This stirs my imagination. Here we are on the border with one of China’s autonomous regions – Inner Mongolia. The border is of course invisible but I feel the wildness just there in those bare winter trees and sweeping north across vast untamed grasslands beyond the forest. My mind’s ear hears thundering hooves of nomadic horses in the wind that is threatening to tear the window from my grip. I close the window and descend, but I’m thinking of that wild place. I have the scent of a new adventure. I feel it in that compelling north wind.

Leaving the Pagoda, we carry on a short distance until we come across a small log sort. The sorting is being done by two men with tape measures and two wheel barrows. They measure a log then take it to the appropriate pile on the barrow. Everything is very organized and tidy. Steed chats with the men while Dad and I take some pictures. The men are accommodating of our cameras and interest. They seem a bit bemused by our appearance in this out of the way place.
So where are we? Well, we’re visiting a National Park in an area which was once the hunting grounds of the Qing Dynasty emperors. This is where they came to ensure their offspring didn’t lose touch with their nomadic hunter heritage or become soft inept courtiers. Why are we here? We want to balance the intensity of the multi million inhabitant cities with another quieter aspect of China. Mission accomplished. This is incredible. Like Canada in the sense of space and wildness. The vast urban jungles seem more than a couple of hundred kilometres away.
Speaking of the urban jungle. It is time to head back south and east. Six hours later we roll into Qinhuangdao. It is dark as we pull up to our hotel – the Shangri La. This is a very new high rise hotel built on a beautiful sandy beach. The hotel entry is gleaming glass and glowing red Chinese lanterns. The lobby is vast with 30 foot ceilings and gigantic beautiful chandeliers. We feel a bit travel weary but are greeted with grace. Our room is palatial and has proper doors between bathroom and bedroom. The dinning room is staffed by charming young people who speak minimal English but who go out of their way to be helpful. We have a lovely dinner, and are soon collapsing – exhausted – into sumptuous beds.
I’m sure our snoring is instantaneous!

4 November – Temples and Palaces in Chengde

This has been our busiest day of the trip! Steed knows how to pack a day full of amazing sights and an overwhelming amount of Chinese history. I wish I could remember half of what he told us!

So a very quick history lesson for you as it pertains to today’s goings on. In the early 1600s Manchurian nomads from the north overthrew the Ming Dynasty and in 1644 established the Qing Dynasty. (Pronounced Ching.)They ruled China until 1911. These emperors liked to get away from the Forbidden City during the summer and get in some traditional hunting and horse riding. They did this up here in Chengde. They also liked to entertain foreign dignitaries a safe distance from the capital. To this end they built eight Buddhist temples for diplomatic and state visits. We visit four of them.
Pule Temple built between 1766 and 1776. This temple contains a 22 metre high wood statue of Guanyin. The legs, torso, head and 42 arms are carved from five separate types of wood. Unfortunately photographs not allowed in that hall. (The Chinese antiquities security folks take their jobs very seriously.)
A little further along is Puning Temple built in 1755 which is still an active place of Buddhist worship. There are prayer wheels to be spun and the resonance of chanted “Om Mani Peme Hum” hangs in the air with wafts of incense smoke. This temple is an artistic and harmonious blend of Chinese and Tibetan architecture. Most temples in China have large tall four sided obelisk type stones called “stele’s.” These stones are inscribed with the history of deeds of the various emperors who had the stele erected. The history on the stele in Puning Temple is written in Chinese, Manchurian, Mongolian and Tibetan. This attests to a close relationship between this emperor (Qianlong) and these surrounding peoples.
Our next temple of the morning (yes it is still morning, we stated early) is Sumeru Temple built in 1780/81 to welcome the Panchen Lama VI from Tibet when he came for the Emperor’s 45th birthday party. This visit is particularly fun because after a fairly steep climb up through the extensive grounds, there is a wooden walkway installed around the roof of the largest building. This affords fabulous view across the surrounding countryside and some close ups of the fabulously ornate roof decorations. These include eight (a very auspicious number) prancing dragons gracing the roof lines.
Lunch? No, first Putuozongcheng temple which is actually a scaled down version of Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Dad goes on strike at this point. He hates ups and downs and we’ve been upping and downing all morning. So I head up the numerous flights of stairs to the higher reaches of the palace while Steed locates a pleasant seat in the sun for Dad. That done Seed comes up to find me. I’ve found the highest place on the palace roof and am enjoying more views from this wonderful vantage point. Most of the interior of this place seems to be closed. The few open rooms are dark and very chilly. 
I forgot to mention that this is another brilliantly sunny day. It started hat wearing cold but is now pleasantly warm. Perfect temperature really for exploring temples.
It is now past two and time for lunch. Steed finds us a funny little local restaurant and once again orders a massive quantity of interesting food. Thankfully he seems to have a very healthy appetite so what we can’t manage he finishes. 
Our next stop is Bishu Shanzhuang which is the imperial summer palace resort. Dad decides a sleep in the car in the sun is of more interest to him then a brisk walk around a corner of the vast grounds. Steed and I do a quick tour through the simple wooden palace buildings. It is very classic and understated. Treed courtyards and numerous interconnected buildings.
The grounds are simply vast so we walk around one of the lakes while listening to live classical music. The day is waining and we still have one more place to visit! 

Upon return to the car we wake Dad and set off for two tall rocks on the top of which are two ancient Pagodas. How people managed to get up there to build the Pagodas is a mystery to me. I have forgotten the name of this place (didn’t write it down!) we arrive just before sunset and the chair lift up the the base of the rocks has already closed for the day. Dad takes one look at the steepness and length of the slope to reach the base of the rocks and retreats back into the car. Steed gets me a ticket and with the sun setting at an alarming rate I begin a lung busting run up the mountain! On the way I see a few signs about entering monkey territory but take little notice. I’m at the top to see the sunset. Then realize I need to hurry along a ridge to get far enough away from the rocks to see the Pagodas on the tops. There is a pathway designed for just this thing. It is covered and looks like a dragon. I dash through the belly of the dragon and am just about to achieve a view of the Pagodas when what to my consternation should appear but two mean monkeys in the twilight. I stop, they bare their horrid sharp monkey teeth. Hmm. Pagoda pictures be damned, I beat a panting and fairly ordered retreat back into the dragon path. Back at the bases of the rocks I find Steed looking totally bewildered. He can’t figure out how I’d run up the hill and further so quickly. It is now getting pretty dark so time to return down to the car. This we do and another surprise awaits us. The gates are closed up tight. We are locked in. Dad is in the car on the other side. Nice of him to have raised the alarm when he saw the place getting locked up! Haha he was asleep and didn’t notice. So Steed and I test the doors and gates. Not opening. We go on a little escape mission and find a night watchman who looks rather surprised but let’s us out! Gee!
Back at our hotel Dad and I have another best forgotten meal with an even worse problem paying than last night. This time I have to take the bill with three items on it to the reception because the dining room staff refuses to take a cash payment. Why they are so adamant to get hold of one of our credit cards we do not know. There is no tip. Steed tells us the next morning that the place hosts embassy staff and diplomats. I will leave it to you to come to any conclusions you wish. Needless to say Qi Wang Lou Hotel is not a place I’d recommend to anyone. 
This is a long blog and sometimes things run amuck when I post pictures. Also it’s time for dinner so pictures coming in a separate Blog in a while.

3 November – The Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall

We’re up early on a very cold -3degree morning. Brr. Once again the sun rises to reveal a clear blue sky. We watch the early sun angle along the wall above our hotel and light it up like a yellow ribbon across the steep hillside. Lovely.

Steed picks us up and we’re very soon climbing out of the car in a nearly empty parking lot! Very few people! Tickets acquired, we walk up towards the various options for ascending the wall. I choose a long series of steps through the forest and set off. Pretty soon hat and coat are off. Through the nearly bare branches of winter ready trees I can see small glimpses of the wall above but it doesn’t get closer too easily as the way is steep. Dad and Steed meanwhile are riding a gondola up to tower 14 which is a high point of this section of the wall.
I emerge from the forest under the wall at tower seven. After ducking through a small portal and ascending a flight of narrow steep steps to the top of the wall, I continue my climb much less steeply and with glorious views down into the valleys on either side. There is hardly another soul around. This is how I’d hoped to experience this place. The wind makes odd music as it plays around the battlements, and whistles plaintively within the towers. I don’t rush, I want this to last but fairly soon I’m closing in on tower 14 and there’s Dad and Steed. Dad is also relishing the lack of crowds. Although, because we are now where the gondola disgorges those unable or unwilling to make the climb, there are greater numbers. Strategic selfie-stick and ladies with sharp edged purses (weapons both) avoidance techniques come into play.
Dad and Steed make their way back down to a large viewing area and I continue for six more towers before returning to meet them for the ride back down. Yes, I consent to taking the gondola as we have more places to go and things to see! The timing has been perfect, as by the time I return to the viewing area the “mosh pit” is forming up. The crowd density is not helped by the Young Communists League having a graduation rally. (Upon graduation these young people can join the party.) Banners, flags and chanting is added to the congested mayhem of a popular tourist spot on a lovely day in China.
I have found this section of the Great Wall more dramatic and scenic than the Badaling section we visited with Viking. Badaling is easy to access from Beijing and as such is really over crowded. This section is also very touristy. If a person wants a more “authentic” experience, there are numerous places that are less developed, further off the tourist path, with less or no facilities. Some of these areas need to walked with considerable caution due to rugged mountainous hiking to gain access to the wall and less wall maintenance once on it.

After lunch – which is many dishes of too much food – we get on a nearly empty, beautifully engineered, toll road and head north east to Chengde. The highway is quite new, as are many in this country. The scenery becomes ever more mountainous and wild. It is very pleasant to not see one building, especially to not see any “herds” of tall skyscrapers! After the past week of  virtual canyoning in the smoggy urban jungle, this day of fresh air and natural scenery is a treat.
It is growing dark by the time we descend into a large valley and the sprawling city of Chengde. As Chinese cities go, Chengde is very small. Somewhere around a million people. There is some heavy industry on the outskirts, with smoke stacks spewing vapour and lord knows what chemicals into the air. We feel we’ve driven right through the city when the road suddenly plunges into a long tunnel through a mountain. But no – the metropolis continues unabated on the other side. 
Our accommodation at Qi Wang Lou Hotel seems very upscale. Built along the lines of an ancient Chinese palace, it commands a hill top location. Checkin takes forever. For such a fancy place, the staff seem very inefficient. Steed finally says something to them and comes with us to help us find our room. There are several buildings built around a couple of large dark tree and rockery studded courtyards. Paths wind this way and that. The morning reveals lovely landscaping. A bit more lighting would be helpful but we eventually find the right building. The room is large and beautiful. The shower door and the bathroom door are one and the same. Seriously. Either the shower door is closed or the bathroom door is closed while the other is open. How odd.
Refreshed from our day, Dad and I set off to find the dining room, in another building off another courtyard, accessed by numerous little paths. We are smart and take our flashlights or we’d never have found our way and likely would have come unstuck among the mountainous rockeries.

Dinner. What to say? So this is China. We had already encountered fried dog meat on a menu on our first night. Clearly we had been coddled and insulated by Viking. Still this menu pretty much horrifies us. I’m going to say no more. In the next blog I will post some pictures to illustrate and preface them by saying that shark fin harvesting has been banned. It is illegal. To give you an idea of prices. 100¥ = Cdn$20.00.  

We find some edible items called “staple foods” on the back page of the menu. What we receive is not very good, but we are hungry and tired so we eat up, and enjoy a beer. Time to pay and they start fussing about wanting us to use our credit card and are very reluctant to take cash. We pay cash anyway, but despite the tip, the staff seem discontent with this choice. Background – we are not paying for the hotel ourselves, the tour company is paying. We are paying for our dinners ourselves.

We find our way back to our building, and are soon in blissful dreamland. This first picture is of the hotel

2 November  – Ming Tombs and a Tile Factory 

This morning we say good bye to our fellow Viking’s. Friends have been made so there is hugging, email address exchanging and promises to stay in touch. I am very sure I will be seeing Pam when I’m in the UK next Spring. We walked part of the Great Wall together and I hope she will join me and friends on part of our upcoming Pilgrims’ Way walk from Winchester to Canterbury. But let’s not get ahead of myself here…. that is just a teaser for stories to come. 
Back to China.

Dad and I meet our new guide and driver – Steed (English translation of his Chinese name) and head off on the next segment of our great China odyssey.

Two days ago we walked the Sacred Way which is a lovely treed avenue lined with massive marble statues. 

I don’t think I wrote about that – it’s all becoming a bit of a blur!

Anyway this avenue leads to a series of Ming Tombs. The emperors’ dead bodies paraded along it on the way to grand burials and the afterlife. The emperors were really set on ensuring a comfortable afterlife so they had enormous tombs built for themselves. There were 16 Ming Dynasty emperors and 13 of them have their tombs in this area. The Chinese are loathe to disturb their ancestors so only three of the tombs are open to tourists. One of these is temporarily closed but we spend several hours exploring the other two. The tombs are within elaborate temple complexes similar to, but smaller than, the Forbidden City. One of the underground tombs has been excavated so we descend many many steps to see the gigantic burial chambers and coffins. The scale of the place is hard to describe. Much higher and wider than a modern subway tunnel would be a staring point. There isn’t much to see down there any more as all the treasures have been removed and taken to museums. Only massive marble thrones too heavy to remove remain along with a few other oversized items.

The tombs suitably explored, we enjoy a lovely local lunch at a persimmon farm. Before leaving we check out the harvesting and drying operation. All done by hand but on a massive scale.
Ten tons of fresh persimmons yield two tons of dried fruit which will be ready for sale in three months. 

We now head north driving along small rural roads and getting a glimpse of rural life in this part of the country. This is a fruit orchard area and the predominant crop is – you guessed -persimmons. The farms we pass all seem tidy and prosperous and everyone seems to be busy. No idle men sitting around smoking in this country. (Unlike in Greece, Turkey, Morocco where Pat and I travelled last year.)
Just before dark we arrive in Mutianyu. Here we are staying for the night in a repurposed 1960s glazed tile factory. The pathways, walls and floors are decorated with colourful bits of broken tile. Our room has its own courtyard and a view of the Great Wall! It’s very comfortable and oh so quiet after the hustle and bustle of big hotels for the past week. Google The Brickyard Eco Resort in Mutianyu if you’re curious about this very upscale place to stay while visiting this area.
I will try to post some pictures but this seems to be problematic at the moment.